Wales get the autumn internationals underway by hosting New Zealand at the Principality Stadium on Saturday evening, the first game in front of an unrestricted crowd for 20 months.
Wayne Pivac’s men haven’t played at full strength since winning the 2021 Guinness Six Nations title, despite losing our final game of the competition away at France, with the summer tests against Canada and Argentina coming during the British & Irish Lions tour.
However, we are technically not at full strength on Saturday evening either as the test match falls outside the recognised World Rugby international window leaving the likes of Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit unable to play courtesy of being contracted to English clubs who are under no obligation to release them.
Meanwhile it is an All Blacks side arriving in Cardiff who have been together for the best part of four months now through three warm-up games against Tonga and Fiji, and then on to winning the 2021 Rugby Championship after doing the double over Australia and Argentina, before beating South Africa to claim the title, only losing the last game which was a dead rubber.
They come into the game on the back of a comprehensive 104-14 win over the USA Eagles in Washington DC last weekend, keen to hold on to their 67-year, 30-game winning streak over Wales which stretches back to December 1953 when tries from Ken Jones and Sid Judd, as well as the boot of Gwyn Rowlands, gave the men in red a 13-8 victory.
The last meeting between the sides came in the 2019 World Cup’s third-place play-off where New Zealand ran out comfortable 40-17 winners, while the most recent clash in Cardiff came in the autumn of 2017 where two tries each for Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane, as well as one from Anton Lienert-Brown and eight Beauden Barrett points secured an 18-33 victory for the All Blacks.
Ioane, Lienert-Brown and Barrett all survive in the starting XV for Saturday’s clash, with Barrett winning his 100th cap for his country. It is an experienced side with front rowers Joe Moody and Codie Taylor, locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitlock, number eight Ardie Savea and scrum-half TJ Perenara joining Lienert-Brown and Barrett on over 50 caps.
Meanwhile flankers Ethan Blackadder and Dalton Papali’i are both on 10 caps or less, and prop Nepo Laulala bears a familiar name for Cardiff fans as the brother of former centre Casey.
New Zealand: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala, Brodie Retallick, Samuel Whitelock (c), Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papalii, Ardie Savea
Replacements: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Akira Ioane, Brad Weber, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece
Wales, on the other hand, are somewhat less experienced as only Tomas Francis, Alun Wyn Jones and Jonathan Davies have passed the 50-cap mark in the starting XV, although captain Jones will break Richie McCaw’s record for test appearances as he makes his 149th appearance for the national team.
The main stories in Wayne Pivac’s squad are ones of return as Ryan Elias makes his first start at hooker since last November, Gareth Anscombe is involved for the first time in over two years, Johnny Williams recovers from injuries to start for the first time since the second game of the Six Nations, and Johnny McNicholl is at full-back for the first time since last November.
On the bench there is a potential debut for Kirby Myhill, while Seb Davies is another who hasn’t featured since last November, and Rhys Priestland could win his first cap since 2017 after a few years away in England.
Wales: Johnny McNicholl, Owen Lane, Jonathan Davies, Johnny Williams, Josh Adams, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Ross Moriarty, Taine Basham, Aaron Wainwright
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis, Will Rowlands, Seb Davies, Gareth Davies, Rhys Priestland, Ben Thomas
The roof will be open at the Principality Stadium due to coronavirus regulations on Saturday and with a wet day forecast the weather could well play a part, but it will be an uphill test for Wales no matter what the conditions.
New Zealand have named a seriously strong side and are in top form. They are showing no signs of fatigue despite the number of games played in recent months, the travelling and the bubbles they are in, and will no doubt be keen to extend their unbeaten run and get their European tour off to a good start.
For Wales it may well be a damage limitation exercise, due to the players injured or unavailable, but with £4m coming into the coffers of the Welsh Rugby Union the blazers will be the winners at the end of the day despite anything that happens on the field.